Welcome to Letters From Quotidia, Episode 177. Our man in Manhattan is still ruminating on life when we pick up from the last letter. He is a little less agitated because he has been sipping from another flask as well as the one which holds his medical potion. While not strictly contraindicated, alcohol is not advised for people in his condition. Would you offer a chocolate and fresh cream confection to a diabetic? But he won’t be told and who are we to tell him, anyway? Looking out at the magical lights in the sky that is the cityscape of Manhattan, he ruminates that here is yet another island in his life’s story- first Ireland, then Aruba, latterly, the island continent of Australia, and now, the smallest island of them all-Manhattan, weighing in at just under 60 square kilometres which would fit into Aruba over five times but arguably worth more than all the other islands combined. His head spins and he sits down as he tumbles back through time to Aruba on his 13th birthday. [ambience changes]
I first held a switchblade in 1962. We were bored. All those movies of youthful rebellion, the stories of the streets brought back by boys from New York City or Chicago fed our hunger for connection in the tropical nights. Sneaking out was a test of manhood. While our parents snored, we would slip away to an assigned meeting place among the cactus and coral. We would throw eggs or almonds at passing police trucks, steal Coca Cola from crates in the backyards of bungalows and crash parties of younger or uncool kids. I remember the shock on the faces of teachers shortly after we showed up at the High School Halloween dance dressed in jeans, black jackets, and white, white T-shirts. It was prize-giving time.
The scariest costume or theme was supposed to win. We swaggered up, five of us, stood in a semicircle before the judges, who, as the younger and less powerful members of the teaching staff, had been allocated supervision duty for the night. They smiled indulgently… how could we hope to compete with the assortment of ghouls, ghosts and goblins standing about in the hall? On a signal we each produced our knives. The click as the blades locked in place was executed with the precision of a US Marine honour guard hefting arms. We didn’t win. Our shiny blades were confiscated,and we got detention for a month.
We were that Junior High’s coolest gang, and we were bad– in a middle-class, pampered, sort of way. Innocent, really, now that I look back on it. We were never going to be a match for the real-life counterparts of The Sharks and The Jets: West Side Story was causing a sensation at the time. And, of course, we were not even in the same universe as those teenage gangs who called themselves the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in the seventies. The lesson I learned as I served my detention time was that the wielders of authority decide who is going to win, regardless of what the rules may say, even when they solemnly intone that everyone has to abide by them… especially then. [play Outlaws]
The following year I took my Dad’s Chevvy for a drive. It was 1963 and I was feeling a bit of an outlaw. I’ve always looked younger than my age and among the well-fed North Americans I was the Irish runt- always the smallest in my class. In yearbook after yearbook, I’m that really small kid at the end on the left-hand side. The police sergeant smiled as he handed the keys back to my father saying that at first, he thought the car was driving itself. It was time to bail. A criminal life was not for me. It’s hard to sustain the persona of an underworld czar when your victims only laugh at your exploits. But, hey, it was the sixties, and rebellion didn’t have to take the form of serious law-breaking. There was a new music being born. And I started to listen.
An older girl who could actually drive legally- she was sixteen- showed me a Martin guitar. She was raving about the coffee house folk scene back in the States. Her name was Mary Ann and she, with her friends Bonnie and Cheryl, took a shine to me and my friends. They adopted us as mascots and drove us around, gave us beers and smokes and complained about their boyfriends. They were seriously cool chicks; they read widely, knew about art and music, and told us that women actually dug men with brains above the pelvic region. Not that this stopped them whistling at the senior basketball team at practice and singing rude songs, the content of which would make a rugby team blush She didn’t need liberating, Mary Ann. Bright academically, really striking in looks, (although, funnily enough it isn’t reflected in her yearbook photographs) she laughed at the teachers at the school and called them greys- even though they were mostly in their thirties and selected for their above average academic record.
I almost cried when I told her that I had to leave to return to Ireland. She laughed, gave me a cigarette, and handed me a bottle of Amstel beer. She leaned over and whispered in my ear: “Don’t go grey.” Now, I never thought she was advocating that I dye my hair in later years. It took me years to realise that she and her friends were an extraordinarily deviant group, but deviant, only in the sense that they were just about as far from the conventional 60s norm as you can get. Then, I just took it as read that the other half of the human race, in whom I was just starting to take hormonal notice, were wise and witty and funny beyond anything that we could come up with.
Time for poetry? I’m currently reading an anthology of 20th Century poems and I’m looking for one that reminds me of Mary Ann…How about I Would Like to be a Dot in a Painting by Miro– Moniza Alvi I would like to be a dot in a painting by Miro./Barely distinguishable from other dots,/it’s true, but quite uniquely placed./And from my dark centre/I’d survey the beauty of the linescape/and wonder- would it be worthwhile/to roll myself towards the lemon stripe,/Centrally poised, and push my curves/against its edge, to get myself/a little extra attention?/But it’s fine where I am./I’ll never make out what’s going on/around me, and that’s the joy of it./The fact that I’m not a perfect circle/makes me more interesting in this world./People will stare forever-/Even the most unemotional get excited./So here I am on the edge of animation,/a dream, a dance, a fantastic construction,/A child’s adventure./And nothing in this tawny sky/Can get too close or move too far away/
I have never forgotten Mary Ann. I would like to think that she took her iconoclastic insouciance into her future life. If she still lives, and if she, by some magic of mathematical chance, hears me now, can I say, Mary Ann- I took your advice, I didn’t go grey or tried not to- I read widely, and listened to music from everywhere I could manage, sought out art and sculpture and tried, even if in a small way, to create. Although, I would be the first to concede- I will never be among the pantheon of your artistic heroes. But, as I said, I read voraciously and still can’t resist a big, really big, Art Folio or an extravagantly outré exhibition- and Manhattan is just the place to be for that! Music still has me enthralled, and I have gorged on jazz and rock and experimental and classical over the past months of my Big Apple residency and I still haven’t been satiated and, alas, I think something else will intervene before satiation occurs.
Oh, I never will forget her laughter at a world that was horrible and risible at the same time. Her laughter was the sound, you know, the music that made me first look at life with a clear, cold eye. I have basked in the glow of memories such as those starlit car-rides out through the police gates, guarding the segregated housing of the employees of the oil company, into the more anarchic multiracial streets of San Nicholas- a mini-Manhattan in its own way- and I have derived strength from something created in those few short months that has endured to this day.
Thomas Hardy wrote a poem, The Self-Unseeing, where he set out that universal truth: that it is only long after the event that we can actually appreciate the significance of our actions and of the people in our lives. Not long after I had the privilege of knowing you, Maryanne, (and, also, Cheryl and Bonnie) I was heading towards a new life in the Old World. Tired old Europe and tired old Ireland were to be the setting of the next phase of my life: the gates of Eden closed as we drove to the airport, my older brother and I, to take a flight that was heading north to Miami and New York, then east, over the Atlantic, towards the emerald isle.
As we soared above the clouds, I persuaded my brother to order a vodka and coke for himself, which I drank. He didn’t drink at the time and, reflecting on this small episode, you might well wonder how the diminutive youth could be so persuasive. Years later I asked him about it and he said that I had an appeal, then, that was hard to resist. His use of the past tense hurt somewhat. We lose so much, as we grow older, don’t we? I wasn’t trailing clouds of glory, but the fumes of that spirit, high above the Atlantic, helped to kill the pain. I knew I was leaving the walled garden, that Eden, in Aruba and that the coming years would be…well, I was to find out:
The conceit of having been cast out of Eden is common enough. It exists everywhere and Genesis does not have a lock on this story, this feeling, this archetype- Oh, I suppose in a world that, now, believes only in getting and spending, I need to point out that I’m referring here to the first book of the Judeo-Christian Bible, not the popular English prog-rock group. The human condition screams at the loss of the primordial state of divine perfection and so we hunt for Shangri La and seek to ascend the Big Rock Candy Mountain.
Credits: All written text, song lyrics andmusic (including background music) written and composed by Quentin Bega unless otherwise specified in the credits section after individual posts. Illustrative excerpts from other texts identified clearly within each podcast. I donate to and use Wikipedia frequently as one of the saner sources of information on the web.
Technical Stuff: Microphone- Shure SM58; (for the podcast spoken content) Audio Technica AT 2020 front-facing with pop filter); Apogee 76K also used for songs and spoken text
For recording and mixing down: 64-bit N-Track Studio 9 Extended used; Rubix 22 also used for mixing of microphone(s) and instruments. I use the Band in a Box/RealBand 2022 combo for music composition